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Phelps: TV ad on teacher pay 'misleading,' 'scare tactic'

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D. Cole Phelps

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Democratic state Senate candidate Cole Phelps is calling foul over a Raleigh-based conservative advocacy group’s television ad claiming he opposes raises for teachers.

In an interview last week, Phelps decried an ad by the Carolina Partnership for Reform as “a scare tactic to mislead voters.” CPR states it funded the ad independently of any candidate's campaign. That would include the campaign of state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who’s opposing Phelps in the 1st Senate District in the fall election.

In the ad, a narrator describes Phelps as a county commissioner who raised property taxes, who wants higher income taxes, and “opposed teacher raises.”

“Anyone that's ever heard me talk learns education is the number one platform we run on,” Phelps said, adding that CPR did not contact him or his campaign before televising the ad.

Phelps said he successfully advocated for Washington County to give local supplements to teachers, and he's repeatedly advocated for teacher raises as a candidate. In particular, he's called for better pay for experienced and highly qualified teachers, whom he and other Democrats argue were overlooked in raises Republican lawmakers have granted over the years.

CPR did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

However, the claim that Phelps opposed teacher raises is likely based on his opposition to this year's state budget passed by GOP lawmakers, including Steinburg. GOP lawmakers enacted the nearly $24 billion spending plan in June, over Democratic opposition and Gov. Roy Cooper's veto. Among budget provisions they touted was a 6.5-percent pay raise for teachers and $12 million in permanent salary increases for teachers with more than 25 years of experience.

Phelps said he did oppose Republicans' budget, but said it’s because “it doesn't go far enough.” He wanted to see larger teacher raises and other additional investments in education, he said.

As for the CPR ad's other claims, Phelps acknowledged he voted for property tax increases as a Washington County commissioner — votes he discussed at length in an interview with The Daily Advance last month.

Washington County commissioner meeting minutes show Phelps and a majority of the commission board voted to raise property taxes in 2016 and 2017 to generate enough revenue to cover pension debt for county employees. Notably, the county inherited that liability before Phelps became a commissioner and the minutes show he joined other commissioners in trimming back the property tax increases, generating less revenue from them than county staff said was needed.

This week, Phelps said county commissioners across the state are forced to comply with lawmakers' “unfunded mandates” and deal with promises lawmakers “renege” on, such as diverting dollars from the NC Education Lottery initially reserved for counties.

As for the ad's claim he “wants higher income taxes,” Phelps acknowledged he's opposed Republicans' income tax cuts over the years. However, he argued that's because the tax decreases haven't benefited working-class North Carolinians. He said Republicans cut income taxes while expanding sales taxes. Republicans' tax reforms led to sales taxes being applied to not only products, but services, starting in 2016.

“What legislators gave with one hand, they took away with the other,” Phelps said, claiming Republicans have increased the costs of myriad everyday services, such as car repairs.

Though CPR didn't respond to a request for comment, one of the speakers featured in its ad did. Pasquotank County Republican Party Chairman Pete Gilbert expressed frustration that Phelps opposed the raises in this year’s budget for teachers, and described him as someone who is “burdening my grandchildren with debt.”

Gilbert said Thursday he wouldn't get into “nickels and dimes” about the ad, but stood by its accuracy, given Phelps opposed the most recent GOP budget.

The Daily Advance also contacted Steinburg on Tuesday to offer him a chance to discuss any ads against his campaign that he considers misleading. In emails, he wrote “the only misleading message I see is Cole Phelps' desperate, false attacks on my character.”

Steinburg didn't specify what attacks he's referring to — the statement is “all inclusive,” he said — but Phelps has particularly criticized Steinburg for getting a $50,000 contract with Currituck County to sponsor a basketball tournament. State officials have said the arrangement is legal, but critics allege Steinburg leveraged his status as a lawmaker to get the deal.

Steinburg also wrote his campaign is contrasting his record against Phelps' record, “but he's so out of touch with the voters he thinks the truth is unfair.”

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